I wish I had written this book and I can think of no higher praise.
The Greenest Branch as a fictional account of Hildegard of Bingen, a young, spirited oblate who overcomes more than just her gender to become Germany’s first female physician. Written in two parts, The Greenest Branch covers how Hildegard earned the title of “physician” and the early parts of her career.
Synopsis of The Greenest Branch
(From the Amazon description)
The year is 1115, and Germany is torn apart by a conflict between the Emperor and the Pope over who should have the right to appoint bishops and control the empire’s vast estates. In that atmosphere, young Hildegard is sent to the Abbey of St. Disibod in the Rhineland as her parents’ gift to the Church in accordance with a custom known as the tithe.
Hildegard has a deep love of nature and a knowledge of herbal healing that might make more than one Church official suspicious of witchery, and she hopes to purse medical studies at St. Disibod. But no sooner does she settle into her new life than she finds out that as a girl she will not be allowed to attend the monastic school or use the abbey’s library; instead, she must stay at the women’s convent, isolated from the rest of the community and from the town. It might seem that Hildegard’s dreams have quickly come to an end. Yet she refuses to be sidelined.
Against fierce opposition from Prior Helenger, the hostile head of the monks’ cloister, she finds another way to learn – by securing an apprenticeship with Brother Wigbert who runs the infirmary and is in dire need of a capable assistant. Under his supervision, she begins to train as the abbey’s first female physician and makes rapid progress. When Hildegard’s reputation starts to spread throughout the Rhineland, Helenger’s persecution escalates as he fears losing control over the women’s community. But that is not the only challenge she must grapple with. She has also developed feelings for Volmar, a fellow Benedictine novice, that force Hildegard to re-examine the fundamental assumptions she has made about her life. Is the practice of medicine within the monastic confines her true calling, or is a quiet existence of domestic contentment more desirable?
With the pressures mounting and threatening to derail her carefully-laid plans, Hildegard becomes locked in a struggle that will either earn her an unprecedented freedom or relegate her to irrevocable oblivion.
The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the true story of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician and one of the few women to attain that position in medieval Europe. Set against the backdrop of the lush oak forests and sparkling rivers of the Rhineland, it is a tale of courage, strength, sacrifice, and love that will appeal to fans of Ken Follett, Umberto Eco, Elizabeth Chadwick, Margaret Frazer, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and to anyone who enjoys strong female protagonists in historical fiction.
Every word of this book is beautiful. The phrasing, the description. P.K. Adams’ talent for writing is evident upon each page of this notable tale.
True to Hildegard’s life, this book has a slow and perhaps flat plot, but I appreciate the author’s honest recount of the physician’s life. At several points I wished Adams had turned up the tension just a bit more, especially with Hildegard’s potential love interest, but in the Author’s Note in the back, Adams admits such events were already heightened for the sake of the book. Life is often not a perfect story arc or action-packed and I respect the author’s choice to stay true to history. Most historical fiction fans will feel the same.
That being said, the antagonist in this book is Medieval German society and the prejudice Hildegard has to overcome to foster her gift. Adams strikes a fantastic balance in the voice of this novel. Hildegard’s frustration comes across but in balance with how a Sister would have honored the Church, its customs, and her superiors even if they often stand in her way. This is a story I easily related to as a female engineer: how sometimes you just want to scream, but swallow battle losses for the sake of the larger war.
I also loved how historical detail was woven perfectly into the plot. P.K. Adams subtly weaves in the details of how a medieval abbey functioned without a single line of “information dump.” Every detail from religious tradition to the medicinal use of herbs flows naturally from the narrator.
Hildegard would be honored to have her tale captured in such beautiful words and by a female author nonetheless. P.K. Adams has honored Hildegard’s memory and story in a exquisite novel I highly recommend. I can’t wait for part 2.
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About The Author
P.K. Adams is a Boston-based historical fiction author, whose debut novel The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale. When not reading or writing, she can be found hiking, doing yoga, and drinking tea (though usually not at the same time).
Learn more about P.K. Adams at her website and @pk_adams.